What They Did: 89-73, 2nd Place NL East.
Actual Runs: Scored 641 runs, Allowed 605.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 85.3 (3.7 below actual)
Restated: Scored 646 runs, Allowed 615
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 84.7 (4.3 below actual)
For as long as stories of epic late-season collapses are told, the 2011 editions of the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox will forever be linked in misery. Both teams had nine game leads on its nearest competitor for a post-season berth late in the season, and the first time either team fell behind that competitor in a bid for the final wild card berth was during the last half inning it took the field. Despite the similar results, both teams have taken very different paths since that final fateful inning.
The Red Sox, who I contend were unlucky to have even been in a position to be caught (see Boston preview here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2012/3/2/2012-preview-boston-red-sox.html) overhauled both its front-office, its on-the-field management ranks, retooled its starting rotation and will start two new regulars in the field. The Braves made no front-office changes and have one new starter, 22-year old shortstop, Tyler Pastornicky, and while he may be a prospect with a bright long-term future, this year will be a success if he posts better figures at the plate than Alex Gonzalez did last year. Even then, scouts are unanimous that his fielding needs work to get to Gonzalez’ level.
Eight different pitchers stared a game for Atlanta last year and although the man who started the most, Derek Lowe, was shipped in a salary-dump to Cleveland, Atlanta plans to spread his starts among the remaining seven starters. Braves relievers completed 522 innings of work last year, second most in the National League, and pitchers who accounted for 74% of those innings will be on the 2012 Opening Day roster. Atlanta clearly thinks the team that missed the playoffs in 2011 did so solely due to misfortune and not because it had any holes that needed to be addressed in the off-season.
I disagree with that conclusion. To continue the comparison of the two teams, Atlanta outscored its opponents by 36 runs last year. The Red Sox outscored its opponents by 138 runs! And yet Boston only won one more game, 90, than Atlanta did, 89. There was one other team in the National League that had a very similar run-scoring differential to Atlanta – the Los Angeles Dodgers who outscored its opponents by 32 runs. Los Angeles won 82 games. This is reflected in the box at the top of the piece. Atlanta played like a team with 85-win talent. From this perspective, you can see how Atlanta and Boston were very different teams that happened to meet at the same intersection of infamy. Boston was unlucky to be in a position to collapse, while the Braves were fortunate to still be in the race in September.
Atlanta had a singular on-field plan in 2011, and to its credit, the team executed it brilliantly. The strategy: scratch out a lead by the sixth inning and turn the last three innings over to the trio of O’Flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel, a law firm I’d clearly hire for litigation. While that plan worked incredibly well for the first 85% of the season, (a 1.66 ERA over 238 innings of relief work and that includes the September collapse) Kimbrel and Venters blew up in September, possibly from overuse, posting ERA’s of 4.76 and 5.11 as the Cardinals were closing in. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but a 1.66 ERA over 238 innings is even better than Pedro Martinez’ transcendent 2000 season – 1.74 ERA in 217 innings – and the Braves’ trip pulled this off in high-leverage situations.)
To my eye, when two of the legs from the crucial bullpen tripod collapsed in September it exposed the Braves’ glaring weakness; the team had a well-below-average offense, just 23rd in runs scored. Even its starting pitching which looked good on both the surface of results (like ERA) and peripheral stats which measure skills (5th in MLB in strikeout rate, 7th in groundball rate, 4th in Expected ERA) weren’t as good as they looked because the Braves’ starters were only 22nd in innings pitched. This put even more pressure on the bullpen.
The bad news for Atlanta is bullpen performance is highly volatile year-over-year. Atlanta’s bullpen, through a combination of effectiveness and accumulated innings, accounted for more value, in terms of Wins Above Replacement, than any other bullpen in the major leagues last year. Here’s a look at the next-year performance of the MLB –leading bullpen the last five years (based on FanGraphs WAR):
Year Team Rank Next Year Rank
2006 Minnesota 1st 17th
2007 Cleveland 1st 20th
2008 NY Yankees 1st 8th
2009 Oakland 1st 25th
2010 San Diego 1st 24th
Maybe the Braves bullpen can repeat its superb performance last year allowing Manager Fredi Gonzalez to again play the six-inning end game to great effect. However, if the relievers are merely league average this year, they will actually outperform four of the last five MLB-leading bullpens. A league average pen is the assumption I make for all teams and this helps explain why. Unfortunately for Braves’ fans, that chops nearly five wins off of last year’s restated wins of 84.7 and makes the Braves an 80-win team unless they get improvement out of the line-up or the starting pitchers.
They should get some improvement on offense as six of the eight starters in the field are under thirty. However, for every piece of incremental improvement they receive from first baseman Freddie Freeman’s continued growth or bounce-back years from still-promising outfielders Jason Heyward and Martin Prado, it’s important to note that the player who led the team in slugging last year, Chipper Jones, is 40-years old. Also, despite a headline-grabbing hitting streak in 2011 Dan Uggla exhibited a terrible erosion of batting skills that, unfortunately, is not uncommon in second baseman once they hit 32 years of age.
Turning to the starting pitching, with the exception of Brandon Beachy who I overdraft in every fantasy league I play in, I think the rest of the staff is generally overrated. Outside of Tim Hudson they are an extreme fly-ball staff and, intuitively, fly balls hurt staffs which allow the most baserunners. Again, except Tim Hudson, every other pitcher on the staff walks batters at a higher than MLB-average rate. That can be a toxic combination which was masked last year by some luck on batted balls and of course, the bullpen. I especially look for Jair Jurrjens to regress significantly from his 2.96 ERA last year. I'll go on record as calling for an ERA at least 1.25 runs higher in 2012.
The Braves rode a stellar bullpen to wins in almost 60% of the games it played through the end of August. Based on the lack of off-season changes in personnel, Atlanta’s front-office clearly thinks that only misfortune kept the team out of the post-season last year and, further, that the pieces are in place to advance to October this year. I, however, view last September’s collapse as an omen, not an aberration. No one, least of all Braves’ fans should view this too despondently though. The NL East projects to be so tight that the distance from last to Wild Card qualifier may be just a couple of wins. It’s almost certainly going to be the most exciting division to watch in 2012.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The conclusion above is pretty simple. The Braves have an average offense, average starting pitching, and the assumption for every team at the outset of the season is an average bullpen. As such a .500 season is the logical conclusion. This view sets up some value to the downside as the Braves over/under win total is set consistently at 86 ½ games across domestic and overseas oddsmakers.
81-81 – Fifth in NL East
699 Runs Scored 698 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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